A new study by Ohio State University in conjunction with the National Institute on Aging has shown that adult children caring for their parents, as well as parents caring for chronically ill children, may have their life span shortened by four to eight years.
For this study, Ohio State University’s Ronald Glaser, head of OSU’s Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research, and Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at OSU, teamed with Nan-ping Weng and his research group from the National Institute on Aging.
This team wanted to expand on earlier work by other researchers that concluded mothers who cared for chronically ill children often developed changes in their chromosomes that amounted to several years of additional aging. The earlier study only considered a broad community of immune cells without identifying the specific immune components responsible for the changes. The Ohio State-NIA team worked to identify the exact cells involved in the changes, as well as the mechanisms that caused these changes.
Their focus was on telomeres, which are areas of genetic material on the ends of a cell’s chromosomes. Over time, as a cell divides, those telomeres shorten and lose genetic instructions. An enzyme called telomerase normally works to repair that damage to the chromosome.
"Telomeres are like caps on the chromosome," Glaser said. "If the caps weren’t there, the rope would unravel. The telomeres insulate and protect the ends of the chromosomes. As we get older, the telomeres shorten and the activity of the telomerase enzyme lessens. It’s part of the aging process."
The team’s research provided physical evidence that the effects of chronic stress, which is often part of the caregiving life, can be seen both at the genetic and molecular levels. They used volunteers who were Alzheimer’s caregivers and compared them with an equal number of non-caregivers matched for age, gender and other health and environmental aspects. The researchers looked at blood samples from each group for differences in the telomeres as well as populations of immune cells.
According to Glaser, "Caregivers showed the same kind of patterns present in the study of mothers of chronically ill kids." He added that the changes the Ohio State-NIA team saw amounted to a shortened lifespan of four to eight years. The researchers believe that the changes in these immune cells represent the complete cell population in the body, suggesting that all the body’s cells have aged the same amount as the immune cells.
Not surprisingly, the caregivers also differed dramatically with the control group on psychological surveys intended to measure depression which is often a sign of stress. According to Glaser, symptoms of depression in caregivers were twice as severe as those among the control group.
Ohio State is now looking at creating studies to find out how to intervene with the stress that comes with providing care for vulnerable people. They hope to find a way to slow the weakening of the caregiver’s immune systems.
Caregiving has many rewards, however there’s no getting around the fact that caring for a vulnerable loved one is stressful. As a caregiver for multiple people, I’ve reminded myself that my parents or others I’ve cared for wouldn’t want my life shortened because of their needs. Still, I haven’t always followed the path of faithful self care.
Eventually, with continued research, scientists may develop a medication that can help correct the effect that long-term caregiving has on the caregiver, however that is in the future.
Until then, we need to help ourselves. Other caregivers in support groups can provide an outlet for our frustrations, our negative feelings, our fears - and yes our joys. We can help each in support groups online and in person. These groups offer support by accepting other caregivers as they are, without judgment. They also share information, resources and offer advice when asked.
Other methods of self care currently available to us include practicing meditation and/or prayer, adhering to our own scheduled medical needs, making time for exercise, eating nourishing food and maintaining a social life. Most caregivers will rarely be able to obtain this ideal of self-care, but we must strive to prioritize our needs often enough to protect our health. Yes, we need to do this because those we love depend on us, but we also owe ourselves a chance to experience variety in our lives.
(2014, May) Ohio State University. CHRONIC STRESS CAN STEAL YEARS FROM CAREGIVERS’ LIFETIMES. Retrieved from http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/telomeres.htm.
Carol Bradley Bursack is a veteran family caregiver who spent more than two decades caring for a total of seven elders. She is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. Bradley Bursack is also a contributor to several books on caregiving and dementia, and is passionate about preserving the dignity of elders. Her website is www.mindingourelders.com. Follow Carol on Twitter @mindingourelder and on Facebook at Minding Our Elders.